by Nina Rubinstein Alonso
Star Health, the hum of legs pumping treadmills and bikes, locker room steamy with bodies dripping from the shower. Last year Jessie worked in India where women covered with light cotton saris or salwar kameez no matter how hot it was. Rattled, she hides behind a locker and changes into her faded green one-piece.
“Culture clash, get over it,” following arrows to the blue pool, sun piercing skylights. Two laps then hot tub bubbles, eyes closed. Should she call Harris in DC, find out what’s happening with that under-funded India project? Opens her eyes and sees a man squinting from the other end of the hot tub.
“We met somewhere?” Lean torso, light brown eyes, curly gray streaked hair.
“Maybe?” his face slightly familiar.
“I’m Jake Callahan.”
She hesitates, “Jessie Shaner, first swim in a while.”
“That’s where I’m headed,” climbs out of the tub and dives into an open lane.
Tells Kim, “Uncomfortable here, uncomfortable in India.”
“What does ‘comfortable’ even mean? Speaking the language? Wearing local styles, the tribal, ethnic thing? Where does that put me, born in South Korea, adopted by a white single mom? Shoveling the usual round-eye racist shit?”
Later Jessie remembers meeting Jake by the punchbowl at Eric Lang’s December party, years ago. Her Latina roommate, Melissa, is annoyed by Jake’s remarks about Africa, but not wanting to get into it, leaves to meet her bi-racial boyfriend. Everyone’s putting on coats, heading out the door when Eric hands Jessie a fresh glass of red wine and says, “Nice job you did editing my article on illegal Soviet arms sales. Been invited to submit to some journals.”
She’s part of his tribe of student assistants, no way to refuse, tosses her coat over the back of the couch, sits. He’s talking journals when she leans forward to set her glass on the floor, as she’s already had too much, feels his hand on her thigh.
“Professor Lang,” she tries, but he’s under her skirt, lifting her sweater, squeezing her breasts, yanking her underwear, his mouth on hers, tongue probing. Pinned down, she hears glass shatter as he presses in, thrusting fast, grunting, pulls out to climax, sighs, mops the gooey semen mess off her thighs with tissues.
“Don’t worry, careful not to make babies. Been watching those hips for months, wanting to fuck you. Great, Jessie, you’re really great.”
Shaking, she grabs her coat from the back of the couch and covers herself. He thinks she’s ‘great,’ had his quickie fun, would never call this rape. Maybe assumes she’s flattered to get fast-fucked by a full professor?
She glances at his thick belly, dangly penis, the dubious mole on his chest, thin hairy legs, shirt open, pants on the floor. He’s carrying broken glass to the kitchen, bringing a sponge to clean up spilled wine. Can’t let anger out, because he could cancel her fellowship, put a nasty letter in her file, ruin her.
“Jessie?” he asks.
Curls under her coat, pretends she’s asleep. After a while he’s snoring in the next room, and she sits up, queasy, not steady enough to stand. The only game is pretend she’s sophisticated and cool, act like it’s no big deal. No use telling officials at the university or filing a rape complaint, forget that dead end as no one wants to listen, women are called liars, insulted, blamed, treated like silly, hysterical sluts who ‘asked for it,’ probably had a good time.
Tries to stand again, gets to the bathroom, pukes, rinses her mouth, splashes cold water on her face. Puts on coat and boots, presses the front door shut, walks home through falling snow.
In her apartment, too upset to sleep, she makes tea, fills the tub with hot water, scrubs, wraps in a bathrobe. Was there a way to stop him? ‘Don’t blame yourself,’ she says aloud, grabs a plate from the table and smashes it on the floor. ‘Damned if I’ll let that fucking bastard wreck me,’ thinking of a friend raped in her bathroom at thirteen by an older cousin.
Days pass, waiting for her period, anxious, as he didn’t use a condom. Relief when staining starts. Melissa’s older sister flew back to Puerto Rico for an abortion when procedures were illegal here, not that long ago.
She works assigned hours at his office, but never alone. When he approaches, “Could use help editing later,” Jessie puts on an indifferent mask, “Too busy.” He doesn’t insist, knowing she could make trouble if he pressures her. Melissa’s still out of town with her boyfriend, no way to tell her what happened until she’s back. Then,
“That fucking bastard! Grabbed me, but I elbowed his thick gut and ran. That’s why I quit the assistantship.”
“You never told me? Said you were busy?”
“I was busy, doing research, finding ways to avoid him. Mad at myself, should know better than work alone in his office, as I’ve heard stories. I was wearing my old black v-neck.” Melissa’s scowling.
“That sweater isn’t tight or low cut, and so what if it was? He has no right to grope you, no right to grab me while I’m putting my wine glass on the floor. Same old shit, blame the woman for ‘tempting’ the man? What crap!” They write notes, consider filing a report.
“We’d get labeled troublemakers, risky,” Melissa says. “Some women are doing it anyhow, too angry to give a shit, found a woman lawyer, preparing a letter for the media.” Unsure what to do, they make notes, file them in a drawer.
Vision International is on the third floor of a gray stone building. The secretary points Jessie down the hall to the office she’ll share with Miriam Bell, PhD, epidemiology.
Her ‘Welcome to Vision International-Marston’ message is disappointing, assigning her to an African health project, not Indian micro-economics, making last year’s work irrelevant. It’s going to be Ebola, Dengue, Malaria. She pictures Harris saying, “Welcome to academia,” laughing so hard his glasses fall off.
First staff meeting they’re discussing the center’s name and logo. “Vision International’s ambiguous,” begins Chair John Markey, sports jacket, no tie.
Miriam Bell says, “That’s how we’re known.”
“Sounds like we make documentaries or teach meditation,” quips a sandy-haired man with a yellow bow tie, Nelson Hardwick.
“What about initials in a circle?” Miriam’s frowning.
“VIMU?” Nelson’s scowling. John Markey puts the matter on hold, “until R.J. returns and we find a designer,” ending the useless hour. Jessie knows Kim could draw five designs in five minutes.
As the new hire, Jessie’s bottom of the totem pole, Miriam the only other woman, power in the large hands of white men over fifty. She’s organizing her desk when Nelson appears in the doorway massaging his temples. “My head’s exploding. No issues at this so-called meeting, only ego-nonsense, worse when R.J. returns,” and leaves.
Miriam Bell has short auburn hair, wears chic make up and speaks bluntly. “R.J.’s a serial womanizer, his work undiplomatic, big ego, gets people upset.” Just what Jessie needs.
Kim does graphic design for a tech company, and builds quirky sculptures in their kitchen, tonight coils of green and purple dangling from wires. It’s Friday, no work tomorrow, but Jessie’s reading about Ebola.
“Studying the plague?” Kim’s twisting wires. “How about coming to New York with me to see my sister dance now that her ankle’s better? Any mocha almond left?”
“In the freezer. When?”
“Couple of weeks. You’ll be on break?”
“Maybe. I’ll check the calendar,” closes the depressing article.
“How about hanging this in the living room’s as it’s got nothing but your dragon lamp, a few sea shells, and that old futon in the corner?”
“Fine, but how about twisting my job into another shape?”
Kim’s digging into a bowl of mocha almond, “More mismatch?”
Jake Callahan shows up at Jessie’s office. “Lunch?”
“Too busy,” she says. Sees him at Star Health, sorry she told him she remembered him from Eric’s party, as this semester he’s at Marston.
He keeps asking, and sometimes she’ll join him for dinner, though she dislikes him, some kind of gut revulsion. Is it because she met him at that bastard Eric Lang’s?
“Why bother?” Kim says. “You can’t stand him, and he reminds you of that asshole Eric. You know the old saying—better alone than in bad company.”
“My job isn’t what I expected.”
“So? How does it help to go out with a jerk? I’ve dated enough jerks, better wait until someone appealing comes along, otherwise why bother? Just get hurt again.”
“What do you mean ‘again’?”
“Can’t get into it, too tired tonight, stupid meetings all day.”
Jessie tries a jazz concert with Jake Sunday night, again feels something ‘off’ about him, but what?
Monday Miriam says, “Saw you at that concert in Mercer Hall with Jake.” Shaking her auburn hair free of a clip.
“We’re at the same health club, met him at a university party years ago.” Jessie’s waiting for the clincher that has to be coming.
“Married, wife and two kids.”
“You know this how?”
Miriam smiles, “We worked on the same project a year ago, started dating. I was recently divorced, living in a sublet in Chestnut Hill. One Saturday I’m shopping at Macy’s and see him with an Asian woman, a little boy and a baby. I’m about to say hello, but he gives me this killer look not to greet him, pretend I’ve never seen him before. We’d meet at my place, always reasons why we couldn’t go to his, roommate’s there with a girlfriend, the apartment’s a mess, guy stuff—all lies.”
“Did you ever talk?”
“Claimed the marriage was failing, considering divorce, but the children were dear to him. Maybe still playing the ‘considering’ game or whatever the bastard calls it these days. I dumped him, glad I wasn’t in any deeper.”
“The guy I care about, Harris, is in DC trying to raise funds for the stalled India project we worked on last year.”
“I was an easy target, post-divorce. Are you doing the post-Harris thing?” Miriam picks up her jacket, brown eyes shiny with tears. “Lunch?”
“Too busy.” Can’t talk about Harris, nothing’s clear.
That night Kim says, “So Jake’s another shit head? You never liked him anyhow.” She’s looking in the mirror, clipping her bangs.
“I care if I’m lied to, made to look like an idiot.”
“Confront the creep, blow him off, don’t let him get away with it. How about a trim?”
Jessie checks her curly brown hair. “Haven’t cut it since before India. Maybe an inch?”
Kim mists and starts snipping while Jessie ponders Jake, Eric, Harris, Miriam, turning them over like cards in a game she doesn’t know how to play.
“Need to tell you about Gus,” says Kim, brushing hair off Jessie’s shoulders onto the floor.
“Gus Kline,” said Kim.
“New boy friend?”
“It’s sometimes possible to have a male friend you don’t sleep with, you know? He’s a writer who needs a place to crash for a while. Used to teach high school, did landscape work, various things.”
“You mean he’s broke, has no job and you invited him here, the one place we can relax?” hating the thought of some strange guy invading the apartment.
“Three weeks, maybe five, max. He and his roommate Nick helped me in San Francisco after I left Ian. Stayed with them for months getting over that phony bastard, madly in love for ten minutes.”
“Ian? Ten minutes?”
“Hold still, I’m cutting. Talk about mismatch? Ian’s this smooth handsome hustler, talked me around the moon. Took months to see through his game and get out. The bastard borrowed money, maxed out my credit card. Never told mom, too upsetting, but stayed with Gus and Nick until I could pull myself together. They didn’t cross-examine, didn’t judge. Gus won’t take advantage. Nick and I got together and are still in touch. He’s even considering a move here, job hunting. OK, take a look.” Kim holds up a mirror.
Jessie looks, wondering how her sensible, practical room-mate, reliable source of sage advice, got sucked into so much craziness.
“When does Gus arrive?”
“Tomorrow or the next day. Don’t worry, he’s a good human.” Kim looks at her own hair in the mirror and tilts her head. “And I’m not bad either.”
* * * * *
Nina Rubinstein Alonso's work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Ibbetson Street, Muddy River Poetry Review, Sumac, U. Mass. Review, New Boston Review, and other venues. Peacock Literary Review recently included her story "Double Rainbows: Translation for Mortals" in their hard copy anthology. vol. 1, number 2. Her poem sequence "Gender Veils" was awarded the 12th Annual Moon Prize by Writing in a Woman’s Voice, and her chapbook Riot Wake will be published by Cervena Barva Press. Her book This Body was published by David Godine Press.